With less than ten seconds to go the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks were all tied up. Manu Ginobili, an Argentinian stalwart on the Spurs roster dribbled the ball at midcourt until there was barely any time left on the clock. Then he struck. A quick step into the key, another to cross himself and a semi-graceful (as Ginobili is often want to do) leap into the air. The basketball left his hands at the moment he reached the peak of his jump. It hit the backboard, circled the rim for what felt like forever, bobbling away on the plastic, before dropping through the basket. The Spurs then led the Mavericks by 2 points, but 1.7 seconds still remained on the clock. Dallas took possession and called a time out.
Time is such a daunting thing. Ever-present, unwavering, incorporeal. In our reality, we find it hard to imagine time without the use of a clock, or a calendar. We use numbers to define an entire dimension; to make it easy to comprehend the unfathomable periods that have elapsed between The Beginning of Everything and Now. We use numbers to know when to expect the sun to rise, or how long two teams have to win a contest of basketball. We need time. Time, as difficult as it is to truly define, is essential to life as we know it.
But video games are different – they operate under their own calendars, under their own rules. Those physical laws and human constructs that we call time can be manipulated freely in video games. They are often so good at this distortion that we lose track of time, playing until early hours of the morning. Should a video game remind us that our time outside of it is precious?
Deadlines are haunting things, aren’t they? I mean, they hang there – in your peripheral vision, ghostly, always just out of view – and then before you know it, you’re staring them dead in the face. They become something tangible and then attach themselves to a very specific species of dread. The kind that makes you feel unwell, anxious. I am currently fighting against time to meet a deadline that could make or break my PhD and set me up for the next few years as a researcher. As it approaches, I ask myself questions, make excuses and complain.
“Have I done everything I need to do?”
“Have I done it correctly?”
“Is this the best I could have done?”
“I wish I had more time.”
“I wish I used my time better.”
These aren’t just questions that plague a researcher’s PhD, of course, but something that everyone wrestles with, no matter their profession. Do we use what time we have wisely? Do we step outside of our social media boxes enough or do we waste hours subliminally tweeting lyrics to Jay-Z’s 99 Problems?
I didn’t think a Final Fantasy game would help me answer those questions.
The Mavericks call a time out, 1.7 seconds, blocky and pixellated, are displayed on the game clock. 1.7 seconds isn’t even long enough for me to type that very sentence. 1.7 seconds is a blink of an eye, a turn of the head.
They pass the ball in from the sideline and it lands in Vince Carter’s hands. This guy has been around for years, so you’d be forgiven for thinking “Where is his walking stick?” Yet his body reacts quickly, fast enough for him to take a couple of steps and release the ball from his hands way beyond the three-point line before 1.7 seconds expires. If this ball drops through the basket, the Mavs win.
That 1.7 seconds feels like forever for a Spurs fan, and perhaps it feels even longer for a Mavs one. I don’t know. From my perspective, all I can do is close my eyes and hope time expires. Perhaps the Mavs fans are staring at the clock, hoping they can will it to slow down.
Of course, none of us can change the passage of time.
The ball approaches the rim ominously.
Lightning Returns, the most recent entry in the Final Fantasy franchise and conclusion to a story started five years ago in Final Fantasy XIII, is deeply entwined with the flow of time. To say it is unlike the time you or I are used to would be incorrect – indeed, it runs faster than we are used to but it is not a different entity. A typical 24 hour day (of which there are, at best, 14) within game lasts approximately an hour of real time and the game itself employs a ‘countdown clock’, limiting the amount of time with which you can complete the story.
The clock is critical to the game’s story but, fortunately, can be stalled through a number of in-game abilities and progression of side quests. At best, you can manipulate this form of time enough to give you eight additional “days”, stalling “The End of the World”. It is an attractive concept to use time in such a way, and as a mechanic it has proven to be well-loved in the past, most notably in Majora’s Mask way back in 2000.
But there is something jarring about using a countdown clock in such a lush, vast and open world. Role-playing games, specifically those bearing the Final Fantasy moniker, once took pride in the fact that they required hours on end to discover every secret that they concealed. With such a focus on time, Lightning Returns does one thing that video games shouldn’t do. It reminds you, with every tick-tick-tick that there exists a world outside the ones and zeros of the one you inhabit.
Lightning Returns even has menus that explicitly tell the player that they should manage their time wisely – that time-wasting is a punishable offence, almost. I am hard-pressed to think of a game within the genre that uses time in such a restrictive, heavy-handed manner. It reminded me of those questions and excuses I would make in the real world when a deadline is approaching and I have finally run out of ways to avoid it.
“I wish I had more time, no…. I wish I used my time better.”
The constant ticking of the clock in the upper right hand corner of the screen is that haunting reminder for me that a deadline hangs over my head like the sword of Damocles, not only in-game but in The Real World. Deadlines are haunting things aren’t they? Indeed, it is Lightning Returns' use of time that most aggressively hammers that point home – our time, as infinite and undefinable it is, is precious and we should use it wisely.
It’s an honourable message, but it is delivered meekly. It only serves to remind us that we are merely wasting time travelling off the beaten path. It makes you want to rush through convoluted cutscenes because of the sense of urgency it instils. Video games shouldn’t make us feel like we are wasting time being in their worlds. They should make us want to spend more time there.
The shot drops smoothly through the net. The characteristic nylon swish resonates for barely half a second before the Mavericks bench, and the crowd at American Airlines Arena erupts.
Vince Carter had only 1.7 seconds to make an impact.
1.7 seconds to win the game. He did.
Ultimately, Lightning Returns actually says something about the way we play video games as a whole. There are many titles released but how many are truly worthy of your time? When you only have very little time to make an impact, you better make it worth it. Don’t make me feel like I’ve wasted my time.
Research PhD @ UniSA. Writing, science, singing.
Often hide song lyrics in my tweets and then reveal it to not much fanfare at all
Jimmy the Geek